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Making the Meters Smarter

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the main energy utility in California, has proposed to the regulatory commission that it be allowed to spend the next five years (and about $1.5 billion) installing upgraded meters for its customers. These meters would allow for variable rates based on peak/off-peak use, as well as remote reading (i.e., no more backyard visitors). Over time, the improved meters will mean reduced operating costs, as well as lower overall peak consumption as customers shift home activities to off-peak hours.

It's a good start, but there are a couple more improvements I'd like to see: support for distributed energy connections; and support for Internet access to use history and real-time measurement by customers.

First, the meters should be able to do "net metering" without modification -- that is, they should be able to measure energy put back into the grid from home solar (or wind, co-generation, or eventually gas-optional hybrid car) systems. (Sharp makes meters in Japan that can do that easily.) And since peak solar generation will tend to coincide with peak use (2 to 7 PM), customers who pump power back into the grid during that time should receive peak rate compensation, too. Ideally, customers who return more power to the grid than they use should even be able to be paid back, up to the amount spent on the home energy system. It may take a while to pay off the solar panels (etc.) that way, but it would give quite a boost to distributed power.

Second, and more broadly useful, customers should be able to tap into their meters over the Internet and get both historical use data and real-time measurement. Each would be useful for allowing customers to determine the best ways to reduce consumption -- historical data for comparisons, real-time data for "what if I shut this off?" experiments. Moreover, making the information available on the web would enable the spread of "ambient" measurement devices, small, low-power objects that can change their appearance or behavior depending upon power use levels. These meters should enable the process of making the invisible visible.

(Imagine, for example, a variation on the "NetBell" project at instantSOUP. Rather than chiming when people visit a website, it could be set up to chime when use exceeded a certain level, helping users avoid overage fees.)

Experiments show that, when people can get feedback on their power use, they use less. It's as true for building electricity as it is for hybrid car gas consumption. If PG&E really wants to be forward-thinking and to encourage people to use less power, making it possible for people to access their own data online would be an excellent first step. With these new meters, they have that opportunity.

(Thanks for the tip, Joe Deely!)


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Comments (7)

On "Ideally, customers who return more power to the grid than they use should even be able to be paid back, up to the amount spent on the home energy system." ... I don't see the need for the "up to limit" when we are talking about the ideal case.

Ideally, people would picture an income for the property (and future owners) ... forever. And why not, as long as it feeds the grid with clean energy?


Gerald Harris of GBN wrote a great paper on demand-side electricity management in 2001 - it's still relevant and worth reading.

Thinking "Out of the Box" About the California Electric Power Crisis
There is a Way to Make Lemonade out of our Lemons

...Here, in a nutshell is the answer to moving electric markets forward: If all consumers (including residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural) know more about prices and cost, they can change their behavior and look at other options. In fact, other options can only be brought forward if consumers can make a fully informed decision based on total value and not costs alone...


Patrick Di Justo:

One essence of capitalism is that consumers know the price of what they're buying. There needs to be a realtime monitor in the home running 24/7 to let's consumers know when their rates have changed.

A certain pest control company uses bait traps that are metered, providing real-time information about the bait level in the traps. The traps are used across the lower 2/3rds of the continental U.S. As the traps need refilling, the control company is informed and takes action appropriately. If memory serves, the information is collected by RF and fed over WAN to a central database.

Why not the same kind of information for energy consumption, with feedback to both the consumer and the energy company? It's in the realm of doable, and the cost savings of meter reading would probably pay for the infrastructure.

Indeed good news but I wonder whatever happened to the idea of Internet access through the electrical wires?


Yes!! regarding the ability to monitor our home power from our computer or separate in-home reader. We all generally have no idea how much power we actually use, or how we can reduce our use. How can we reduce usage without this information in an easy-to-understand format?


Ontario will be rolling out smart meters in significant numbers starting next year, and they are planned to be in all houses in the province by 2010.

The rates for those already on smart meter pricing vary between 2.9 and 9.3 cents / kWh. They're divided into four or five time blocks per day, to ease the cognitive load on consumers.

Apparently low-volume users will have the option of paying wholesale prices once they have smart meters, at an hourly time resolution or better. Given that the total demand and wholesale rates with history are public, I'm sure consumer-level price-linked power management tools will be available once the smart meter rollout creates demand...


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